Tattoos and Catholic Morality

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: How the craze for tattoos seems to be ‘sinptomatic’ in the post-Christian West.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Q. I’m a priest in Mexico. I get a lot of questions about the morality of tattoos. Many young people want to get them, and so ask me if permanent skin decorations are a sin. Many devout adults in Mexico believe they are. I believe that openly proclaiming that tattoos are okay could be problematic. Any thoughts? —Rev. José Luis

A. I do not think getting a tattoo is sinful, or at least not necessarily so. By this I mean that the act of deliberately imprinting an image or message on oneself, whether permanent or temporary, is not necessarily a violation of any intrinsic human good, permanent command of God (including Leviticus 19:28, the permanent validity of which is disputed by some Jews and Protestants) or teaching of the Catholic Church.

Does this mean that it is a matter of moral indifference? No, I do not think this either. If I may coin a word: Although they are not necessarily sinful, I think in the post-Christian West the craze for tattoos is “sinptomatic” — i.e., a cultural symptom of widespread sinning.

Our sinfulness causes us to see things wrongly and value things incorrectly, especially things of ultimate importance. St. Paul says those who forget God and give themselves over to sinning grow “futile in their thinking” and their “minds become darkened” (Romans 2).

Vast numbers of people in the West in the last 60 years have given themselves over to terrible misuse of the body, especially (but not only) through various forms of sexual misconduct. This has caused a darkening of our understanding and valuation of the human body.

We have come to see and treat our bodies “dualistically.” This means we think of our bodies not as ourselves, not as persons, but somehow as our possessions, as things we use to make us happy: “I can do with my body anything I want!” We say this the way we might say this is my house, or my car or my goldfish. If our house no longer suits, we renovate it. If our car no longer pleases, we buy a new one. If caring for our goldfish becomes a nuisance, we destroy it.

Seeing our bodies as things rather than persons, as instruments at the service of our conscious selves, is part of a mentality that accompanies some of the gravest sins of our age: bodies without consciousness (e.g., embryos, fetuses, comatose individuals) are not true persons, so we can kill them; our bodies are there for us to use however we want (promiscuity, prostitution, pornography); my body tells me nothing essential about my true self, therefore if I feel consciously attracted to a member of the same sex, I am “gay” and I act out sexually; if I feel I am a woman in a man’s body, I am a woman, despite the clear datum of the body. Body-self dualism can be very destructive. And inasmuch as the tattoo craze is connected to it, I think tattoos can be morally and spiritually unhealthy.

You might reply saying that altering our hair color or having cosmetic surgery is not fundamentally different from getting a tattoo: All are efforts to alter the appearance of our bodies. Although I think there may be morally relevant differences, you might be correct. But let’s leave that conversation aside for now.

My point is neither to say that every person who gets a tattoo is guilty of body-self dualism, nor to say that every person who gets a new hairdo is not. It is to point out a destructive frame of mind that is undoubtedly a part of our culture today. And to the extent that people see getting a tattoo as a kind of artistic self-expression, it seems they are considering their bodies like canvases on which to express themselves. If this is the case, they are thinking dualistically.

Our bodies are not canvases to write on, or ships we pilot, or dwellings we own. They are visible, external manifestations of our wider persons, which are made in God’s image and likeness. I don’t have a body, I am a body — although not only a body. My body is therefore fully personal. It is the first and most manifest revelation of my true self.

Moreover, St. Paul tells us our bodies “are temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6). Think of the great reverence the ancient Hebrews had for the Temple in Jerusalem, or that Christians today have for St. Peter’s in Rome. It might be helpful to ask ourselves if we’re thinking of getting a tattoo: Would it be appropriate for me to paint this permanently on the high altar at St. Peter’s Basilica?

If we have doubts, then we might pause before painting it on ourselves, since our bodies are far and away more sacred than any church altar.

Tattoos are permanent alterations. Since our bodies are sacred temples of God, any permanent alteration should be carried out only for good reason. For example, during the Ottoman occupation in the Balkans (15th-19th centuries), some Christians received tattoos to avoid the Islamic blood tax and forced conversion to Islam and enslavement.

Within indigenous cultures, tattooing may be included in right-of-passage rituals marking the transition from boyhood to manhood. A woman with a rare medical condition might have a tattoo placed on her chest as a symbol to first responders.

What about other common motives for tattoos — e.g., to get attention, to shock or offend, to intimidate, to look cool or sexy, to express rebellion? Or what if I want a tattoo just because I’m bored, because my friends have tattoos, because they’re pretty or because it’s fun?

None of these sounds to me like a good reason for getting a tattoo.

With St. Paul, I offer the following advice to Christians: “Honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6). In other words, we should assess our motives in the light of whether or not our contemplated action brings honor to God.

How can I tell if this is the case? We know it honors God if it is a sincere expression of our effort to fulfill our personal vocations — that is, to live out the unique and unrepeatable role that God calls each of us to play in carrying out his divine plan. (Consider reading this outstanding book.)

So, for example, a Christian biker who believes Jesus wants him to evangelize among bikers might get a tattoo with a Christian theme to witness to his love for Jesus. Or a woman in a 12-step program might get a tattoo to celebrate a recovery milestone, or as a permanent reminder to stay on the straight and narrow.

If we can’t see any connection between getting a tattoo and fulfilling our personal vocations, then we probably shouldn’t get one, not because getting a tattoo is sinful — although if my motive is sinful (e.g., to make myself sexually alluring to someone other than my spouse), then getting the tattoo is sinful — but because in permanently imprinting something on ourselves, we will be saying something with our lives that we don’t believe Jesus is asking us to say.

Does this mean we should look down on people who have tattoos? Absolutely not — not unless we want to be like the Pharisees.

What if my child gets a tattoo without my permission?

Since tattoos are not matters of moral indifference, I don’t think warm-hearted acceptance of the tattoo is a healthy response. But because in most instances getting a tattoo is not sinful, and because tattoos are so common today, I would be very cautious about punishing my child for doing it, lest we cause alienation that will make it more difficult to transmit to him or her the Gospel’s teaching on human dignity.

My approach is to speak openly and non-defensively about the topic with my children.

For example, after finishing this article, I promptly emailed it to my three older kiddies with the subject line: “let’s speak about this together,” and included in the message an emoji — a virtual tattoo! — of a smiley face.

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